MANAGUA – Not every foreign government is able to strike the right balance of respectfulness and fortitude needed to navigate the diplomatic minefield of Nicaragua, where relations between the Sandinista government and foreign donor community have grown increasingly tense and snippy in recent weeks.
Yet for the Canadian diplomatic mission in Managua, which captains the large international team of foreign donors here, the challenging role is one they’ve been rehearsing for 35 years.
Canada’s non-resident Ambassador to Nicaragua, Neil Reeder, said his country’s relationship with the Sandinista government is both “very positive” and “longstanding.” It’s a relationship, he said, that’s based on political respect and commitment to helping the country’s future growth and development.
President Daniel Ortega, whose treatment of foreign donor countries has become increasingly acidic in past weeks, had nothing but accolades for Canada when he accepted Ambassador Reeder’s credentials last November.
“We’ve had extraordinary relations with Canada, despite the fact that they are the neighboring country to the United States,” Ortega said upon receiving Reeder’s credentials during a Sandinista rally in the Plaza de la Revolucion. “From 1979 to 1990, Canada maintained relations with Nicaragua. It didn’t adhere to the policy of the (U.S.) embargo of war and death. It maintained trade and relations in all aspects.
“We value the respectful way in which Canada’s people and government have developed relations with the people and government of Nicaragua,” Ortega said.
That’s a policy that Reeder and the Canadian mission here are trying to continue today amid the growing challenge of maintaining positive relations between the Sandinista government and the foreign donor community, which Ortega has insulted in recent weeks for being “meddlesome” and trying to use its budget support funds to impose its will on Nicaragua (NT, June 27).
Following Ortega’s latest outburst, in which he told the Budget Support Group that it could take its money elsewhere, Reeder says it is still premature to say that foreign aid is “at risk” here. But, he said, Canada, as head of the so-called “table of foreign donors,” wants to help “calm the situation” and discuss the issue with “cooler heads.”
He said the foreign donor community will meet this week to discuss the situation further, but that the group’s commitment is clearly to “the poorest of the poor,” even if there is a disagreement with the government.
“We don’t want these kind of conflicts,” said Reeder, who was in Nicaragua last week for the June 26 Canada Day celebration and a subsequent meeting with Ortega, during which he respectfully reiterated some of his government’s concerns.
Reeder, who also serves as Canadian ambassador to Honduras and Costa Rica, where he lives in San José, would rather focus on the more positive elements of his country’s budding relationship with Nicaragua – one that he said is maturing and evolving with the years.
Traditionally, Reeder said, Canada’s relationship with Nicaragua has been one based on development aid, which has totaled some $300 million over the past 35 years.
Canada is also very active in helping to fund Nicaragua’s demining efforts, providing $6 million for landmine removal efforts so far, and recently pledging another $750,000 to remove the remaining mines in the northern departments of Jinotega and Nueva Segovia.
But as times change, Reeder said, the relationship between Canada and Nicaragua is moving more toward “a newer era” based more on economic partnership, trade and investment, rather than handouts.
Canadian companies now have some $200 million invested in Nicaragua in mining, energy, textiles and tourism development.
Canadian firms and investors are among the leaders in several sectors. Polaris Geothermal is rapidly emerging as a leader in the country’s alternative-energy market; Norwood is a leader in oil exploration; Gildan Activewear employs 3,000 in the textile market; and Seaside Mariana Spa and Golf Resort, headed by Canadian investor Kevin Fleming, is the largest and most ambitious tourismdevelopment project in the country.
As the Canadian dollar gains strength against the U.S. dollar, an increasing number of Canadians are also becoming investors in the Pacific coastal real estate and development markets in Central America, Reeder said.
While most of that action is happening on Costa Rica’s coast, the ambassador said he thinks Nicaragua will soon start benefiting from Costa Rica’s “trickle up,” as the Tico market becomes increasingly saturated and over priced.
Canada also hopes to unthaw its free-trade talks with the CA-4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). The ambassador said he thinks that Canadian-Nicaraguan trade relations, which currently total $100 million annually, only stand to improve with a free-trade accord.
That would help the investment climate, too, he said. “Investment follows trade,” the ambassador said.
Though the Canadian community here is still only pushing 500 expats, Canadian tourism – including the charter flight industry – is picking up, totaling around 20,000 visitors a year. Reeder said many Canadians have fond memories of Nicaragua from the solidarity days of the Sandinista revolution, and now that the Canadian dollar is gaining strength more people are coming to visit the country – many for the first time.
And as was the case with the U.S. tourism market, the more visitors come, the more they stay and invest, and the stronger the ties become between the two countries.